NYC Vineyard on the UES Owned by 89-Year Old Iraqi Jew
Did you know the Upper East Side of Manhattan has a vineyard? Most people don’t. The owner is 89-year-old Iraqi Jew, Latif Jiji. The wine named Chateau Latif, is not licensed for sale, but is rather shared with family and friends. For the past 50 years, he and his wife Vera have turned their 15-by-45-foot backyard into a winery. All the grapes come from one single vine, growing from their garden and oddly creeping more than 100 feet up the exterior wall and onto their roof. Jiji did not initially intend to make wine. He only wished to add distinction to their yard. In 1984, their first harvest bore 24 pounds of grapes, which would be sufficient to make nine bottles of wine. Their vineyard’s high record now stands at 712 pounds of grapes in a single harvest.
Their wine is white, dry and “fruity”. Harvest time is usually 10-days in the middle of September. Jiji has made a wine cellar in the basement, along with machinery to process the grapes, as well as a custom refrigerator that he built himself, probably guided by his engineering experience. They wait two weeks for the sugar in the juice to be converted into alcohol, and another nine to 12 months for the sediment to settle and the liquid to take the shape of wine. And finally, it’s time for L’chaim.
As reported by VIN News, Jiji says his passion for wine “came from being Jewish in Iraq, celebrating Passover.” His father grew grapes and made wine in the courtyard of their home in the Iraqi port city of Basra. The majority of the people there were Muslims who did not drink alcohol, but Jews and Christians were free to make and drink their own wine. As Jiji told JTA, life was peaceful in Basra during his childhood. The town had roughly 10 synagogues and two Jewish schools.
Then in 1941, Iraq made a brief alliance with Nazi Germany provoking a British invasion. Rioting and looting broke out in the city targeting Jewish neighborhoods and businesses. The pogrom became known as Farhud, or “violent dispossession” in Arabic. The neighboring city of Baghdad fared far worse. Not only was there looting, but close to 200 Jews were murdered there, with many more injured. Jiji’s family was safe, and they opened their home to Jews fleeing from more dangerous areas. “Jewish people, of course, were frightened,” Jiji said. “Friends and relatives started to come to our house; we had probably about 50 people. We gave up our beds, my siblings and I. I remember sleeping on the floor with only a towel for a pillow for days.”
“A lot of people in the house started talking about what to do if we were attacked. We had no arms, but we had long sticks and at the end of the long sticks we put a bolt. We carried them around in case someone tried to break down the door, but no one did,” Jiji recalls.
Eventually, things calmed down, but their peace of mind was gone. The Farhud opened the final chapter of 2,700 years of Jewish life in Iraq. In 1948, when the U.N. voted to create the State of Israel, Jiji’s family celebrated, but they also knew that their welcome in Iraq was culminating.
Jiji left for the United States. Within ten years, the rest of his family would all flee to the U.S. or Israel. He enrolled in Hope College in Michigan, later transferring to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and earning a degree in engineering. It was then that he received a demand from the Iraqi government to either return to Iraq or have his citizenship revoked. He stayed away, and became stateless, possessing a student visa but no passport at all. He continued his studies, receiving a doctorate from the University of Michigan. In 1954, he met and married his wife Vera, the daughter of Hungarian Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx. He became a U.S. citizen in 1961. Jiji taught engineering at numerous universities, including the City College of New York, where he worked until he retired in 2014. Jiji and his wife raised four beautiful children together, and a beautiful vineyard. His story is but one in the vast city in NY.
“Friends and relatives started to come to our house; we had probably about 50 people. We gave up our beds, my siblings and I. I remember sleeping on the floor with only a towel for a pillow for days.”
Did you know the Upper East Side of Manhattan has a vineyard? Most people don’t. The owner is 89-year-old Iraqi Jew, Latif Jiji. The wine named Chateau Latif, is not licensed for sale, but is rather shared with family and friends
In June 1941, a Nazi-inspired pogrom erupted in Baghdad known as the Farhud. 180 Jews were killed and 2,000 were injured.